Saturday, December 27, 2008

6. Yankee Stuffing

For nearly four decades my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners included a delicious roast turkey and cornbread dressing. The dressing, a mixture of cornbread with a little white bread thrown in, was cooked in a separate pan. The top was brown and crusty and the interior moist with broth, celery and onions. It had just the right amount of sage and, if my aunt had her way, chopped pecans. Invariably several “bites” were cut from the pan as the cooks finished preparing the meal.

I was taken aback at my first New England Thanksgiving dinner… the bird came out of the oven with something belching from its cavity. This soggy, gummy, tasteless mush is called stuffing and although I can pretend to like it, in my mind it’s always Yucky Yankee Bread Stuffing.

Yes, cooks here take pride in their stuffing, adding chestnuts, sausage, or oysters. Some try to make it healthy with whole wheat bread, apples, and walnuts. But this is supposed to take the place of cornbread dressing? Throughout my years in Maine I have tried to assuage my husband’s Yankee roots by making this bread stuffing on occasion. Although he appreciated my effort, my heart must not have been in it as there was never any raving about my stuffing and it was always the last leftover in the fridge.

This Christmas I put my foot down and decided to make cornbread dressing. Unfortunately, in all those years of having holiday dinners in Lubbock my mother never showed me how to make it. Yes, she gave me her “recipe,” which consisted of a little of this, a dash of that, just add some broth until moist: nothing very specific. I have tried it in the past, with little success at replicating her masterpiece. So this year I went to the internet and found what I thought was a similar recipe to hers, with precise measurements. Alas, it did not turn out the way I wanted! I’m afraid I need a hands on cooking lesson from mom.

Of course one has to have a turkey to go with the dressing and that’s never been my specialty either. I have tried roasting a turkey every which way and they have often come out dry or underdone. On Thanksgiving this year we went to some friends’ house and had one of the best turkeys I’ve ever had (don’t tell my mother). Doug was kind enough to give me his recipe and walk me through the brining method step-by-step. I followed his directions to a “tee” and it was fabulous! So moist and flavorful. Now if I can just get the dressing down I might be able to host a holiday dinner myself someday.

As the hectic month of December rolled on I began to question the wisdom of preparing such a labor intensive Christmas dinner. Work was a massive accelerando to Christmas Eve and I hardly had time enough to make out the grocery list and shop. Emily and I spent most of Christmas day in the kitchen, listening to Ella Fitzgerald as we chopped and sautéed. Having pulled into the driveway about 1 am that morning after Christmas Eve services, I was tired and briefly thought that going out to dinner might have been a good idea. But as we sat down to our beautiful meal complete with Christmas china and a fully lit Advent wreath I began to feel the stress of the past month melt away. I took a deep breath and a sip of wine and realized that I could now truly savor this day.